Oakland Raiders

The key to Raiders’ pass rush: Focusing on missed opportunities in rookie season

Raiders have high optimism for 2019 season

The Oakland Raiders are in its third week of organized team activities before three-day mandatory minicamp next week.
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The Oakland Raiders are in its third week of organized team activities before three-day mandatory minicamp next week.

Arden Key was working out at the team facility this offseason when he was summoned to the office of new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner.

As a rookie, Key, a third-round pick out of LSU, was supposed to be a third-down pass rusher. The Raiders would use his burst off the edge to complement both Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. He’d get 20 snaps per game or so, using his quick-twitch abilities in a specialized role as he gradually added enough bulk to be a fulltime player.

Mack was traded. Irvin was ineffective then released. Key was playing 45 or more snaps per game instead of 20 and finished with all of one sack in Week 6 against Seattle. The Raiders had 13 sacks as team, 17 fewer than the next lowest in the NFL.

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther thought he was close enough on some rushes to have had eight sacks. Coach Jon Gruden compared him to a relief pitcher, saying he needed to learn how to close.

To Key’s chagrin, Buckner had put together a video of all the times he could have had a sack. And it was more than eight.

“He had a whole clip of my `almost’ 13 sacks, whether I fell, slipped, or the quarterback got away,” Key said. “It was very nerve-wracking because I could have had a better first year. But hey, we all learn from those mistakes.”

One particularly galling miss came in Week 2 against Denver, when Case Keenum escaped on the final drive and the Broncos went on to win 20-19 on their last drive.

“If I had just hit the ball, I’d have had a sack fumble and the game would have been over with,” Key said.

For as much as the Raiders are looking to rookies such as first-round pick Clelin Ferrell and fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby to give the pass rush some juice, the hope is Key will unlock his potential and turn his “almost” sacks into quarterbacks on the ground.

And what Key learned from Buckner is that he’d often lost individual battles before they were ever fought.

“The ball ain’t snapped yet and I’d missed a sack already by my alignment, whether I was too wide, too right or I didn’t turn my hips enough,” Key said. “Most of it was alignment and knowing what angles to take because football is all about angles.”

Not only was Key light for his position, but he played with a shoulder injury that nagged him from the start of training camp. He said he had surgery in January to “clean up” any problems. Add that to Key’s list of disadvantages to go along with his lack of bulk and being forced into too much, too soon.

“Got to be ready to step up,” Key said. “No matter what the plan was before the season, during the season things change with injuries and things upstairs. Got to be ready every time.”

Key said he has a better idea of what it takes to be a pro, but is still a rookie in a sense because Buckner is teaching entirely new techniques.

As for the Key’s ability to disengage with offensive linemen that are considerably heavier, he has been gorging himself with salmon, chicken, beef, rice (lots of it), broccoli and asparagus at the behest of the Raiders training staff and says he’s up to 260 pounds after starting the offseason at 245.

“They got a meal-prep guy here,” Key said. “They hooked me up with him. Been good ever since. I’m not stuffed, but it’s annoying because it’s the same thing over and over again. You’ve got to add some hot sauce to hit, a little salt and pepper. But you gotta do what you gotta do.”

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